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Bassam and Shirley Madany

The term “Western baggage” is frequently used in missiological circles. Some missionaries and missionary theorists torture themselves as they try to figure out just how much they should adapt to the customs and cultures of the people to whom they are bringing the Gospel. Likewise, they question how much of their own culture they may safely share. In a recent issue of AL-HAWADETH, a weekly Arabic-language magazine published in London, England, the subject of Westernization was tackled from the Arab viewpoint. Arab thinkers today are grappling with the challenge of modernization. How to catch up with the new world and not lose their culture in the process is the burning question for Arab and Muslim intellectuals from Indonesia to Morocco.

AL-HAWADETH, like other Arabic magazines published in Western Europe, has contributions from many talented Arab writers who do not enjoy the freedom of the press in their homelands. In her weekly column, Ghada As-Samman wrote a sparkling bit of prose as she addresses this thorny question. She considers it to be a most important issue. What really annoys her is that the blame is so often directed at “women” in the Arab/Islamic world, as if they were the only guilty ones, as if their wearing of Western garb, for example, was the greatest crime!

Her title was catching and was taken from the well-known children’s story about the king who had no clothes. It was: “We Are All Naked and People Have Eyes.” In other words, she wanted to make it perfectly clear that this matter of Western culture weighs on the shoulders of every Arab man and woman, and that there is an urgent need to find a workable solution. She believes it vitally important for Arabs (and Muslims as well) to discover just how to have a healthy interaction with the world without losing their identity.

As a woman, she had a particular bone of contention. She was furious over a column in an Arabic newspaper in which a certain public speaker had shown demonstrably biased feelings towards women. Evidently, a lady in his audience one evening, attired in Western dress, had asked him a question about the rights and place of women in Islam. He was not ashamed to brag that he had certainly put her in her place. He had told her that because she was dressed in a Western dress, she had become a woman without identity. She was like a creation made by Dracula! This latter comment, Miss As-Samman noted sarcastically, was a slip of the tongue because obviously he meant Frankenstein, not Dracula. Even in translation you get the full feeling of her reaction:

“As if Arab men who had come to the occasion were wearing Arabian clothes and as if our esteemed fellow-writer came in his Egyptian Gallabiyya! As if he had not shaved that morning with an English blade and used French- made after-shave lotion! As if he did not listen to the news on an American-made radio! As if he had not taken his German Mercedes and gone to his office filled with Italian furniture! As if his own wife made clothes of Egyptian cotton and Syrian silk! As if she put her food in a refrigerator of Arab origin and his children watched television on a non-imported set! As if he did not write his lines to abuse that woman, using an American or Polish-made pen, but wrote it with an Arabian reed!”

She went on to note how much time is wasted in the discussions among some Arab intellectuals whether to find new words to describe things like telephone, television, and sandwiches. As she pointed out, to give these items Arabic names would never alter the fact that they had been invented and produced in foreign lands.

She was very critical of the current habit of spending money on Western products and on vacations in Western lands, and then returning home to heap abuse on these so-called decadent countries. She had detected that the real problem lay in their secret admiration of the fruits of Western civilization, and a craving for its freedoms.

Certainly this Arab writer is not concerned at all about who is guilty of bringing all the above-mentioned symbols of the West into Arab and Muslim lives. The interdependence of the world has reached a level that such questions are almost ridiculous. Television, radio, advertising, travel, computers, education abroad, and other things, have made absorption of other people’s tools and customs inevitable.

While modern Muslims like Ghada were decrying this hypocritical denunciation of the West, at the same time she was calling for some kind of co-existence between Islam and the world.  It will help you appreciate the magnitude of the problem from the Arab standpoint. The Arabs have a glorious history. There is no doubt about that. During the European Middle Ages, the Arabs enjoyed their golden age when they were the ones exporting arts and crafts to Europe. You have only to visit the cities of Spain, such as Seville, Granada and Cordoba, or read the history of Arab scholarship in centers like Baghdad in the ninth century, to realize that this is a tremendous reversal for them—to be on the receiving end of every great invention of modern times. In our globalized world it is inevitable that the world cultures impact each other.

There is a parallel here which bears mentioning. There may be a lesson for Western Christians. In some Christian circles, we have detected a persistent criticism of the pioneer missionaries regarding their so-called “Western baggage” and their part in bringing it into the mission fields. At present the dominant culture is Western. Followers of the other major world cultures, especially Islam, find it very threatening. But they cannot avoid it while living in such an interdependent world. Meanwhile those who criticize the pioneer missionaries for taking with them their “Western baggage” are actually manifesting a basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith. The baggage they would be referring to would be everything that is typical of our Christian heritage. They would see the liturgy and style of worship as decidedly Western and they would have doubts about the singing of western hymns or western hymn tunes. They forget the deep roots of the historic Christian faith, springing out of the very Middle East to which it is now being brought.

While it is obvious that the Western world was Christianized, the Gospel did not originate, geographically, in the West. The apostles and evangelists (with the exception of Luke) were of Jewish background, but they wrote the New Testament in Greek, the universal language of their time. The Great Commission propelled them into the world. During the First Millennium, the Ecumenical Councils defined and defended Christian orthodoxy by summarizing for us the Faith, in the Creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon. We call them Ecumenical Councils.

As Reformed Christians, we believe that the Reformation was the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in leading men like Luther and Calvin to rediscover the Gospel and reform the faith and life of the church. Their works brought to light especially the Biblical doctrines of salvation and the church. Eventually, they were summarized in the catechisms and confessions of the Protestant Churches. When the missionaries took the Good News to Africa and Asia beginning in the late eighteenth century, their first agenda was to give the converts the Bible in their own languages. But it would have been utterly irresponsible, if Reformed missionaries had refrained from sharing with the young churches, translations of the wealth of the Reformation.

For example, heroes of the faith, the missionaries of the 19th and early 20th century, spent a lifetime in service to the Arabic-speaking world. They learned the language with such skill that they could produce the Smith-Van Dyke translation of the Bible in 1865. Some of them were gifted enough to write Arabic hymns. Others wrote books, which would be a guide to worship. Many of these treasures are almost lost from sight.

Thus, as we deal with the subject of “Western baggage,” we should distinguish between that which is an integral part of the universal Christian heritage of the last two millennia, and the “Western” secular worldview that has dominated so many aspects of the Western culture in the twentieth century. It is certainly our mandate as Western Christians, to take the Good News of Christianity to our divided and tortured world, along with all the fullness of our truly Christian heritage. At the same time, we should make it clear to the followers of other faiths that, as Christians, we deplore the dominant Western secular worldview. We base our faith on the unchanging Word of God, and we are eager to share with others, the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ.